Poetry is a political action undertaken for the sake of information, the faith, the exorcism, and the lyrical invention, that telling the truth makes possible. Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. Good poems can interdict a suicide, rescue a love affair, and build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter. I would hope that folks throughout the U.S.A. would consider the creation of poems as a foundation for true community: a fearless democratic society.
Building a community that might contribute to Jordan’s “fearless democratic society” is no small accomplishment in most classrooms. Over the years I’ve learned that poetry helps move students to listen and care about each other while they build literacy skills. Too often community building happens in the opening days of the school year. Teachers and students engage in a series of games designed to foster group skills and bonding, but in my experience, these activities drop off after the first week – as if community is established with one or two activities. In addition, these opening strategies are frequently divorced from the content area. Creating a community of learners is not at odds with building literacy skills in a language arts classroom. We don’t need to put aside words to develop a classroom where students can share their lives.
The age poem is a great community-building activity. Students get to talk about childhood memories – big wheel bikes, the smell of glue in kindergarten, songs, and games – that connect them and allow them to acknowledge their common bonds. This activity also brings in their family stories, languages, and customs that shape their lives. The structured approach to the poem also gives students lots of choice – from the age they choose to the details about their lives that they want to reveal.
I start this activity by using Garrett Hongo’s poem “What For” from Yellow Light. Hongo’s poem is rich with details; it tells stories, names foods, uses his grandparents’ language. “At six I lived for spells:/how a few Hawaiian words could call/up the rain, could hymn like the sea…” In later stanzas, he evokes his grandfather – “I lived for stories about the war/my grandfather told over hana cards…” and his grandmother – “I lived for songs my grandmother sang/stirring curry into a thick stew.” “What For” also has a repeating line that helps students scaffold their own poem from stanza to stanza. Garrett Hongo is an outstanding poet whose use of verbs and imagery provides a strong model for student writing.
The age poem teaches students some basic facts about poetry – the power of specifics and repeating lines – two writing “tools” that they can carry over into essay and narrative writing. And it teaches them to collect “evidence” prior to writing, sort their details, select the best ones, and then shape their poem through the use of a repeating line.
After reading Hongo’s and several student poems (see Students Page), we talk about what we learn about the poets by looking at what they valued, what was important enough for them to include in a poem. We also look at the kinds of details the poets used – names of family members, teachers, games they played. After we read, I ask students to write lists that match the ones in the poems we read – and I add a few other categories:
- Names of games they played – outdoor games like freeze tag, cartoon tag, hide and seek, school games, imaginary games.
- Names of clothes – especially the weird or wacky clothes like days of the week underwear or superhero t-shirts, special occasion clothes.
- School memories from early years – teachers’ names, books, special projects.
- Memories of things they were too small to reach, or things they could do because they were small – reaching the light switch, playing with the big kids, going on rides at the carnival.
- Family memories – parents, grandparents, special stories, food, ceremonies. (Hongo’s poem pays special tribute to his Hawaiian grandparents.)
- Strong memories – a memory frozen from that time that replays for them.
- Music they loved, television shows they watched.
We share their lists out loud as they brainstorm. This is a huge piece of the community-building aspect of poetry writing. It is time consuming, but it performs several functions. One student’s memory sparks memories for other students, so they can add details to their lists. But students also share common memories and laughter as they tell stories about playing freeze tag at dusk or wearing their Superman t-shirt every day of the week. Sometimes they attended the same elementary school or church, so their collective memory becomes part of the classroom story. This is also the time when students talk about their cultural heritage, including, food, religious holidays, names of family members, and words from the language of their ancestors.
After students have compiled their brainstorming, I ask them to review their lists and either highlight or circle some of the best items – those details that really help the reader understand how the child they were at five or six became the person they are today. I also encourage them to include words in their “home language” when appropriate.
Once students have selected their best details, I write Hongo’s and Bea Clark’s (see poem above) opening lines on the board: “At ____ I lived for…” and “I am in the winter of my ______ year. We play with variations – changing the age, changing the season. I encourage them to incorporate one of these lines into their poem as a repeating line or to create their own repeating line to help move the poem forward. I also tell them to surprise the reader with a memory like Tim McGarry includes in his poem “Six“: “I lived for a year when/Mom’s temper got hidden/behind school and/a new lover.”
After students have written a draft, we “read around.” Seated in our circle, students read their poem. After each student reads, classmates raise their hands to comment on what they like about the piece. The writer calls on his/her classmates and receives feedback about what is good in the poem. I do stop from time to time to point out that the use of a list is a technique they might “borrow” from their peer’s poem and include in their next poem or in a revision. I might note that the use of Spanish or their home language adds authenticity to a piece and ask them to see if they could add some to their poem. After a few read-around sessions I can spot writing techniques that students have “borrowed” from each other and included in their revisions or in their next piece.
Creating community in our classrooms should not be at odds with developing student skills. Although I’m not convinced that writing poetry will bring about the revolution, I do believe that learning to share pieces of our personal history and listening closely while others share theirs is absolutely necessary if I want students to write deeply and passionately about their lives.
I am in the winter of my fifth year.
My days are filled with kindergarten
And brown readers.
We sit at tiny desks,
In tiny rows
Surrounded by a scaled down world
With giant alphabet men and woodblocks.
We make paper angels, wrapping circles into
Using styrofoam balls for heads,
Silver and gold glitter on heavenly
Tissue paper wings.
Too much glue makes no difference.
Add more glitter, stiffer wings – sharp wings.
We have paper angel fights.
Glitter flies into our hair, on our red faces.
Mrs. Hasselbacker calms us down.
It’s time for the next activity.
The juice is gone.
And Denise ate glue on her chocolate.
We climb onto the Magic Carpet
And Mrs. Hasselbacker reads stories
From beat up hardback books.
We clap and laugh and fall asleep
On each other’s shoulders.
It’s time to go home,
To build snowmen that glow at night
And wink up at my window
When the moon is out.
Time to sleep,
Of reindeer biting my toes,
Pirates’ booty found in the yard,
And smiling alligators.
Bea Clark, Jefferson High School Student
Hongo, Garrett Karou.
Yellow Light. Connecticut:
Mueller, Lauren, ed.
June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint.
New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.
OTHER GOOD MODELS FOR AGE POEMS:
“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros from her book Woman Hollering Creek and “The Thirty-eighth Year” by Lucille Clifton from Good Woman.
“The Summer I Was Sixteen” by Geraldine Connolly can be downloaded from Billy Collins Poetry 180: a poem a day for American high schools (www.loc.gov/poetry/180/003.html)